The Vital Importance of Story

guest written by Wim Coleman of Chiron Books.

When it was suggested that I write a guest post for TestSoup about bringing narratives into the classroom, I was immediately thrilled. Then I was daunted.

My wife, Pat Perrin, and I met in Los Angeles in 1986. By the time we got married the next year, we were already collaborating full-time as writers. We’ve been writing together ever since—novels, plays, poems, and many, many different kinds of educational materials (we’ve both been teachers). Through more than two decades of collaboration, we have been obsessed by one single overriding theme: the vital importance of story.

So how to write a single post about bringing narrative into the classroom? I don’t think I can pull it off. It won’t do to just write about how to use stories without first getting into why. So I’ll write more than one post. I’ll devote this first one to Pat’s and my story-centered worldview, hinting at what it has to do with education.

To jump-start me with this post, Pat suggested that I take a fresh look at the first book we published together, PragMagic (Pocket Books, 1991). In it, we distilled a decade of reporting that had appeared in Marilyn Ferguson’s Brain/Mind Bulletin, a newsletter that had become a clearinghouse for all kinds of research and discoveries in science, health, creativity, psychology, social sciences, and education. Our job was to take all this information and turn it into a whopper of a self-help book. Our emphasis throughout the book was upon story: How can this or that piece of information be used to enrich the story of your life?

I hadn’t looked at the book for a long time (we’ve written lots of others since then). I peeked into the first chapter and noticed a section titled “The Power of Story.” There I found a quote by psychologist-educator Renée Fuller, the creator of the Ball-Stick-Bird phonics program:

“Making stories may, indeed, be fundamental to human thinking. The ability to comprehend a story—that is, to grasp meaning within a given context—may be more basic to human intelligence than anything measured by IQ tests. The need to make our life coherent, to make a story out of it, is probably so basic that we are unaware of its importance.”

Yes, our thinking exactly—except Pat and I would take it even further. We must learn to value even fictional narratives for the insights they can offer. Indeed, it is possible that few, if any, of the stories we live by aren’t, to some extent, fictions.

Around the time Pat and I were working on PragMagic, we also had the privilege of collaborating with cognitive philosopher Daniel C. Dennett on an experimental essay/story called “Media-Neutral,” which eventually appeared in our first novel The Jamais Vu Papers (Harmony/Crown, 1991) In it, a fictional character discovers that he’s a character in a book. Desperate to understand how being fictional affects his life, our character goes to Dennett for advice. “Media-Neutral” was great fun to work on, and Dennett threw himself into his therapist-philosopher role wholeheartedly.

Now, Dennett has taken flack over the years for his assertion that the human self is an “abstraction.” What! Doesn’t this mean that the self doesn’t exist? Not at all, Dennett has explained. An abstraction is a kind of fiction, certainly, but it can have real consequences in the world. Dennett likens the self to a center of gravity:

“A center of gravity is just an abstractum. It’s just a fictional object. But when I say it’s a fictional object, I do not mean to disparage it; it’s a wonderful fictional object, and it has a perfectly legitimate place within serious, sober, echt physical science.”

When you consider, say, what it would take to tip a chair over, you’re thinking, consciously or not, of the chair’s center of gravity. The center of gravity might be a fiction of sorts, but its effect upon the chair is plenty real. The self, suggests Dennett, might be described as a “center of narrative gravity.” I won’t try to explain that concept here; I doubt that I could! Just note the word “narrative.” Consciousness and the human self are outcomes of imaginative storytelling. We can’t get away from stories—indeed, fictional stories—for a single microsecond of our lives.

So we must tend well to our stories. In our memoir/essay “A Mexico of the Mind” (anthologized in Solamente en San Miguel, Windstorm, 2007), Pat and I offered this reflection:

“Storytelling, like all art, like life, is an act of learning—of finding out. We are mistaken to assume that stories of transformation are only about transformation, mere illustrations. Instead, they are transformation itself, acts of practical alchemy, with the power to alter the reality of every receptive person they touch. (That’s why we must learn to recognize a hate-based tale in any garb, and admit that nothing holy feeds on pain.) As we live our stories and tell them, we learn what they are about … and they change … and they transform.”

Taking all this into account, “using narrative in the classroom” sounds almost redundant. The classroom is filled with selves, and therefore with stories. It’s easy to visualize the classroom as a setting where a grand drama unfolds, where all those stories come together in a sweeping narrative. The issue, really, is what “subplots” you, as a teacher, can bring to this overarching story. How can you consciously and deliberately use stories to enhance your students’ learning?

In my next post, I’ll start getting down to brass tacks about that.


About the author: Wim Coleman is a playwright whose works have won national awards and have been presented in New York and Los Angeles, and he is an award-winning poet. He has also been a teacher, and has degrees in Theater, Literature, and Education. He usually writes in collaboration with his wife, Pat Perrin. Together, they have well over 100 publications. They publish independently for young people through ChironBooks. Wim and Pat lived in various parts of the United States before spending thirteen years in San Miguel de Allende, where they created and administered the San Miguel PEN Scholarship Program for at-risk students. They also adopted their daughter, Monse, there. All three of them now live in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  You can learn more about Wim and his work at his website.

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